Last week, as Chair of Judges at this year’s Beer Writers’ Awards, I presented Johnny Garrett with the award for Beer Writer of the Year for 2022. There’s always discussion and speculation about these awards online, which occasionally reveals that people don’t really know how they work. So here’s a full and frank account of how the awards happen.
About the Guild and the Awards
The British Guild of Beer Writers was formed in 1988 with the following objectives:
- To promote excellence in beer, cider, and pub communications
- To support beer and cider communicators in their professional and skills development
- To help educate, inform and inspire people about beer, cider, and pubs
- The Guild is formed as a non-political body to pursue these aims
The annual awards seek to reward beer writers with both recognition and cash awards. They change continually over time to reflect developments in beer communications. The scope and number of categories is reviewed on a continual basis.
The Guild is run by a Board of Directors, elected by members every year at the AGM. Of these directors, the Chair receives a small stipend, and in addition there is a paid, part-time secretary who works two days a week. The Treasurer also receives a small stipend. Everyone else on the Board donates their time on a voluntary basis. Directors must retire after three years by rotation, and seek re-election if they wan’t to continue on the Board.
The Awards and Dinner are a huge amount of work. While the Board oversees and approves any key decisions about the organisation of the Awards, such as recommended changes to categories, it has no direct involvement in the running of the Awards. This is outsourced to a paid, independent person or organisation who:
- Finds and books the venue for the dinner
- Recruits the judges
- Advertises the awards and coordinates entries being received and distributed to the judges
- Oversees the judging process
This means that the actual judging of the awards has no direct involvement from the Board (with one occasional exception – see “judges” below.) The Board, including the Chair, find out the results of the awards at the same time as everyone else in the room on the night, and have no decision making power.
The Guild looks for sponsors for the awards to (a) help pay for the dinner (the price of individual dinner tickets is kept below cost for Guild members) and (b) enable us to pay cash prizes to our winners. The Guild awards a cheque of £1000 for Gold tankard winners and £500 for silver tankard winners. This year the Guild awarded winners a prize pot totalling a record £19,500.
Anyone can sponsor award, but obviously, big brewers are more likely to be able to afford to sponsor. Some people are unhappy that large scale brewers have a presence at the awards. As stated above, the Guild is apolitical and as an organisation expresses no view on industry issues – though it works to support and amplify the right of any Guild member to make their own feelings known.
It’s perhaps understandable that people may worry about the potential for these sponsors in some way to compromise the independence of the Awards. The Guild takes steps to ensure that this cannot happen. The judging process has absolutely no input from sponsor organisations. Like the Guild Board, sponsors find out who the winners are on the night, at the same time as everyone else. Sponsors may ask to see the winning work that has been entered in their category after the event. As that work is already in the public domain, the Guild supplies it on request.
The Guild puts no pressure on any individual to not criticise a company just because they happen to be a sponsor. Often, sponsors are criticised by people entering the awards, maybe even people they are writing cheques to. Mostly, they accept this. If they don’t, they are free to withdraw their support from the awards. This has happened in the past.
Some comments that are critical of the awards talk of a clique of writers slapping each other on the back. Perhaps some of this comes from the fact that when someone wins Beer Writer of the Year, they are expected (though there’s no way of forcing anyone) to be Chair of Judges the following year. (The exception referred to above – this person may be a Board member, as I was when I won last year.I’ve won Beer Writer of the Year four times in total, so I have now chaired the judging four times.) This is actually intended to ensure that the same person can’t win year after year – you can’t win and then enter the awards the following year. There’s also an informal convention that the Chair of the Guild doesn’t enter the awards. (After winning Beer Writer of the Year in 2016, I judged the Awards in 2017 and then didn’t enter 2018-2021 as I was Chair of the Guild.)
So the Awards presentation may be given by familiar faces. But it’s a very different picture behind the scenes. The process of finding judges starts around April. Out of ten judges, very few are beer writers. Apart from the Chair, we look for a brewer who can read for technical accuracy, a journalist from outside the industry who’s lack of beer knowledge leaves them free to spot a good story, someone from the broader publishing world – a cross-section of different talents. Each year most of the judges doing this have never judged the awards before.
This year the awards were judged by me, a publican from York, a committee member of the British Institute of Innkeeping, a magazine editor, a brewer, a beer importer, two freelance journalists (an unusually high number) a book publisher, and a cheesemonger. Hardly beer writers slapping each other’s backs.
Many of these judges have never before seen the work of the communicators they are judging, and in some cases have never heard of the person submitting the work (none of us in this game is as well-known as we’d like to believe.) The judges can only make their decisions based purely on the work in front of them.
First Round Judging
We usually have 13-14 categories, and this year there were a total of 190 different entries. That’s far too much for any one judge to read, so judges are paired up and given a few categories each. These two judges read everything in the categories they are given, and from that prepare a shortlist of up to six finalists. They are also asked to give their opinion of who the winner and runner-up in that category should be. Each pair of judges selects their own shortlist and no one else’s. So no one person gets to go “This person should have five shortlist places, that person shouldn’t have any.” If you go shortlisted in four of five different categories, it means four or five different sets of judges have thought your work was good enough to go through without discussing it with each other.
Second Round Judging
The shortlists from each category are then shared with all the judges, so everyone reads each other’s once they are finalised. At the final judging meeting, each judge presents their shortlist and argues the case for their category winners. These decisions are debated, challenged and often overturned by their fellow judges. Often there’s consensus. This year many categories went to a vote, which was often very tight.
Once all the category winners are chosen, the Beer Writer of the Year is chosen from them. This is not just a process of maths – who’s won the most categories – through it often ends up going that way. But it’s never just nodded through.
An important point – once the judging is finished, then and only then are the shortlists made public. By the time the shortlist is published, the judges already know who the winners are. This means there is no space for lobbying that x or y should or shouldn’t win. By the time the shortlist is revealed, the judges know who the Beer Writer of the Year is, but no one outside the judging room (apart from the people who engrave the trophies and the AV guy who does the slides) knows who the winners are.
Bias and agenda
So to address some the criticism that is aimed at the Awards on social media after each year’s event, this exhaustive – and exhausting – process means “The Guild” has no say over who gets to win any award. It means very few people judge more than once, or in consecutive years, so there is no long-term agenda around who should or shouldn’t win. Each year has to be taken on its own merit because it’s a different set of judges and maybe even a different set of categories than the year before.
No one can guarantee that there definitely isn’t be someone on the judging committee who has either a grudge against or a bias towards any given entrant – there’s no extreme vetting process for judges before they are invited. But if such a situation did exist, that person would (a) Only be able to influence first round voting in two or three categories, and would (b) need to convince nine or ten other people in the room for second round judging to vote with their prejudice rather than with the other judges’ views on the work before them. It’s statistically possible that there might be more than one person in the room with the same grudge. But a majority? Year after year? The odds would have to be astronomical.
“The same old faces”
In 2021, we gave a total of 29 tankards or highly commended mentions. Eleven of these – more than a third – were to people who had never won a Guild award before. Best Newcomer and Best Citizen actually have it written into their descriptions that these awards cannot be for the same old faces. And of that sounds like some kind of patronising consolation – in 2015 the winner of the Best Newcomer Award (then called Best Young Beer Writer) swept several categories and won Beer Writer of the Year.
Seven awards last year were given to women: maybe that’s not enough, but it’s seven more than there were ten or fifteen years ago. In 2014, our Beer Writers of the Year were a male-female couple. In 2018, the Beer Writer of the Year was a woman in her own right for the first time. Two years later, the award was again won by a woman – who was only in her mid-twenties at the time.
This year, a further nine people were recognised in these awards for the first time.
No one can deny that there are cliques in the beer scene. But the Guild has worked extremely hard to ensure that doesn’t transfer to the judging of the Awards.
If you’re reading this and thinking “Hang on, that bit sounds like it might be open to abuse” or “That doesn’t seem fair,” please let me know and I’ll pass it on to next year’s judging team as part of my feedback from this year. Otherwise, I hope this reassures anyone reading that the awards judging process is fair and unbiased.